That is the question. For years I shunned social media for that very reason, thinking all that tweeting, posting and updating would create too much heat in my brain. I was also fearful of trolls.
I suffer from schizoaffective disorder a very complex mental health condition that involves extreme highs and suicidal lows and I have a history of psychosis. It's a bloody pain to live with this brain 'thing', the lows are debilitating, you want to sleep forever and never wake up, but then you are as high as a kite spending thousands of pounds on stuff your really don't need and that's not the half of it. I have concluded that art, exercise, writing, diet, sleep and having a kind voice to listen to your 'mental shit' is all that I need and for years this sustained me and kept me from jumping off a balcony (a recurring fantasy). But when I wrote my book Schizophrenics Can Be Good Mothers Too, under the pseudonym Q.S.Lam I realised I had created something that I needed to get out there in the world to mental health care practitioners, people who have suffered psychosis and postpartum psychosis and their families. Suddenly I was on a mission, a mental health crusade, to educate and share all that I have learnt over the years trying to manage my, often, 'red hot' brain. What better way to do that than via social media?
Detail from a brain drawing, (pen and ink on paper, size A1, 2008)
So, at the beginning of this year I set up a twitter account, I reactivated my Facebook account that had been lying dormant and neglected for years with scores of friend requests that had accumulated perennially. Suddenly I accepted the lot. A friend immediately wrote, 'Welcome to Crackbook'. I set up my blog on Tumblr: email@example.com, established a YouTube channel to post all the films that I have made and I even succumbed to Instagram. There is also my pigmentexplosion website that needs updating each time I create new work with a huge backlog to upload.
It can be overwhelming. I can lose interest. The pressure to post, the pressure to keep people engaged, the pressure to get likes and amass new followers - who cares, does it matter?
I used to think nostalgically about life before the internet and mobile phones. I would write letters, or use the landline to contact people, you spent more time reading, in the park, drawing and painting. It was an innocent time, less complicated than today.
When social media was gathering a momentum, I closed my eyes and shut my ears and was disparaging towards Facebook retorting, 'I prefer face to face'. And I do like to look into someone's eyes and get lost in a meandering conversation, nothing beats that, but often it's just not possible. I am in contact with people all over the world and email is preferable to even a Skype call, I still find talking into a computer weird.
For a long time I found email onerous, when I have been in a psychotic state I can write 100s of emails and fire them off to devastating effect. My husband was concerned that I might tweet something that was incongruous or be too open and expose myself to attack.
At the beginning I didn't get the hang of it, tweeting voraciously and posting so much art, initially, on Facebook - people couldn't keep up. I was writing a new blog each day and social media was eating up my time and energy. Of course then people reply and you feel compelled to write back. Beginning to resent social media I longed for solitude and time alone with my paint brush. Did anything that I posted make a difference? Then I played devil's advocate and announced that I was going to bugger off for good and say goodbye to social media, but people insisted that I stay, saying I offered something different from the norm.
I like to share and help others. Altruism is to be condoned. Social media can be a force for good, you can make a small dent in people's consciousness and when people write to you and say that your art or words move them then you feel a little less isolated, the rebarbative voice of Fred (in my head) becomes quieter, this longing for an end diminishes and you think, 'Maybe I have something to say and it is worth saying, so I will stick around.'
Sometimes I loathe social media, other times it leaves me dizzy and makes me smile. I am conflicted, I am still learning.
When I told my friend Stephen Fry that I had joined twitter and felt daunted, this was his reply:
'Twitter does take a bit of getting used to, but once you get the hang it's great. People don't follow you automatically and the tweets you put out won't be seen or read by anyone (imagine your tweet being written on one leaf in a huge forest in autumn ... the wind gets up and millions swirl around ... the chances of seeing any one individual tweet (are rare). But if you have followers then they will see your tweets in a different timeline. All sounds confusing, but think of the idiots who are capable of harnessing its power for their good and you know you'll be able to over time... xxx'
So in answer to my initial question does social media exacerbate or ameliorate mental illness? Yes and no. You can create virtual networks of support that are comforting and even empowering, but too much tweeting, posting etc. creates heat in an already hot brain and can make you feel mentally unwell, it's finding the balance. Don't let social media control you, a little bit is ok, sharing is good, too much can send you over the edge.